By Christina Neary
Ireland is a land full of folklore and legends. Many popular ones are known worldwide, for example, banshees, leprechauns, and fairies. But another, almost forgotten in modern society, is that of the Celtic merrow, who, legend has it, frolicked in the cold waters of the Celtic seas.
Merrow (from the Irish Muruch) is a mermaid or merman, who needs a magical cap (cohuleen druith) in its possession in order to travel between deep water and dry land. In the land of the ancient Celts, they were described as beautiful mortal women swimming in the sea. However, the surface of the water hid the fish-like tails of these strange, supernatural creatures.
Sailors and fishermen found the Merrow irresistible, especially when the sea fairies combed their silken hair. The comb was a magical symbol of feminine power in Celtic mythology. The term merrow applies to both the male and female of the species. They are said to dwell in Tír fo Thuinn, or “The Land beneath the Waves.” Merrow men were said to be hideously ugly to the point that the mermaids refused to take them as mates.
Little is known about merrow except that their bodies were covered in emerald scales with stunted limbs and green hair. It is said they are so bitter over their appearance and loneliness that they capture the spirits of drowned sailors and keep them incarcerated under the sea in a desperate attempt at revenge.
Merrow women, on the other hand, were beautiful, with long radiant hair and glistening scales on their tails. They preferred the company of the human men to those of their hideous species. Many human men have been seduced by these mystical creatures over time. Those with the surnames of O’Flaherty and O’Sullivan in County Kerry and County Clare are believed to descend from such unions.
It was said that in order to keep these beautiful creatures on land, a human mate would need to take the merrow’s magical cap before she could enchant them with her song, or their soul was captured forever to be held in a cage beneath the waves. When this cap was taken from her and hidden she could not return to the sea. To possess her cap meant you held a great power over her and the human could persuade her to marry them. However the yearning was so strong that these creatures would find their cap and return to their land below the waves, the cap holds the power of the merrow and enables them to live under the ocean. Such unions with humans were destined to be short-lived and the merrow would drag her suitor back with her beneath the waves.
Written accounts of the merrow women luring unsuspecting Irishmen date back to the ancient Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, also known as the Annals of the Four Masters. Indeed, even the all powerful demi-gods of chaos known as the Fomorians were not immune to their charms. Legend tells that at Killone Abbey in County Clare, a merrow swam up to the lake to enter the crypts and steal wine from their cellars. She was caught and killed, but before she died, she dragged herself back to the lake where it is believed that every 40 years the water turns red with her blood. The lake has red clay, which can give it it’s red tinge, but I like to believe it is the merrow mermaid reminding us of the injustice done to her.
In the 1960s, there was a reported sighting of merrow women at Kilconly Point, Kerry, and in 1936 in Renvyle County Galway, there were reported sightings of the more elusive merrow men. Two fishermen, Martin Heanue and Thomas Regan, were approached by him in a cove and the bearded creature grabbed at their curragh, or scabbard. One of the fishermen went to hit the creature with his oar, but the other man stopped him, for superstition dictated that the man who struck a merrow with his oar would die within the year.
Selkies are another form of the ancient folklore. They are part human and part seal and can appear as seals in the water and once on land, they remove their skins to reveal their human form, when they can be seen dancing on the beaches at night. The selkie stories are more common in the northern coastal counties, in Scotland, and in Scandinavian folklore. If a human was to steal her skin, she was bound to stay with them, unable to return to the sea.
There are many more accounts of these mythical creatures and their interactions with us in our Irish folklore. These tales, though not as well known in modern times, are a testament to life on this island. The Irish are a nation of sea travelers and have relied on it for our survival for thousands of years. And, we are a nation of superstitious people with an love of storytelling. But, I like to believe as I walk our beaches listening to the song of the sea, that somewhere out there in the water is a beautiful song being sung by the alluring and mystical creature known as the Celtic merrow.
Catch of the Merrow
By Tomas O Carthaigh
The waves in time give up the sight
Of the Merrows catch that fishes at night,
The tears that washes the faces with grief,
Wash them anew bittersweet relief
At least their flesh is among their own again
To be laid with forefathers and remembered then,
The Merrows of life misfortune or folly
Or pressures too great for a person to carry
No creature is it as once believed to be
Still the Merrow takes her share to the waves
Of the Sea.
Dedicated to the memory of those whose lives end in the water.
Or Shannen of the Sea
By Ryan Ratliff, 2015
I’ve wandered from shore to shore
My stays on land so brief
Searching for the heart I lost
To a winsome, sea born thief
I’ve prowled the ports every night
And walked each sandy beach
To find the skin she would’ve shed
And watch that she should breach
Across the oceans with wind to sail
Forty gulfs and seven seas
Like I, my ship has weathered storms
And wearied in the breeze
If I should die; I’ll die in quest
And my spirit nor be free
Lest I find my selkie bride
My Shannen of the sea.
Celtic Merrow Names
- Duana: Irish for song
- Meagan: Irish for pearl
- Maeve: Irish for goddess of song
- Maille and Mailis: Irish for pearl
- Mairin: Irish goddess of the sea
- Marella: Celtic for shining sea
- Ronat: Celtic for seal
- Shoney: Celtic for sea god
- Ula: Celtic for jewel of the sea
- Una: Celtic/Welsh for white wave
- Bradan: Irish for salmon
- Ennis: Irish for from the island
- Hurley: Irish for sea tide
- Merric: Irish for ruler of the sea
- Morgan: Celtic for fighter of the sea
- Morrissey: Irish for choice of the sea
- Muireann: Irish for of the sea<
- Muireadhach: Irish for lord of the sea
- Shoney: Irish for sea god
- Uisce: Irish for water
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.